On Racism and Growing up in the American South

Growing up in the South, you learn from an early age about racism. Our public schools taught from books that The Daughters of the Confederacy bought for schools. Eventually, we read books that actually told some truth.

I remember reading about the Civil Rights movement and its leaders.  I remember learning details about Martin Luther King, Jr.  I remember feeling shame to know he was assassinated in my home state of Tennessee.

I remember learning about the Holocaust and reading Number the Stars when I was in fourth grade.  I was drawn into learning about the horrors of the Holocaust – and feeling shame because my family was so proud of our German ancestry.

I remember growing up in church, learning that all men are precious in God’s sight, but then realizing our country, whose motto is “In God We Trust,” doesn’t feel the same way.  I felt shame as a child, a teenager, and an adult listening to sermons and joining books clubs only to see racism and hatred inside the building.

I have a constant fear that I’m going to be racist. I have a constant worry that I’ll be insensitive.  I was raised with the “as long as it’s a joke” or “as long as it’s only said with those you can trust” as a workaround. Everywhere you turn, racism is there, and when I was growing up, there weren’t enough people fighting against it, at least not in the South.

The 250-acre family farm Rachel grew up on in Pelham, Tennessee.

Less than a month ago, I turned 36 years old. For 36 years, I’ve felt the pain and the shame of watching and hearing racism happen all around me.  I’ve had racist moments myself, and it’s something I feel great shame about and something I work on daily to get better about.  I could blame my upbringing, but to grow, I must state that I’ve done wrong and try to be better.

I moved North seven years ago.  I thought things would be different up here, and sure they are a bit. I started worshiping with Jews and in synagogues.  Racism can happen there as well, but I was impressed with how it’s called out and fought against inside those walls.  After years of being considered a Jew, I converted.

I remember sitting with two rabbis and a cantor, being asked about and ensuring I understood that becoming a Jew was taking on all that Jews go through, including antisemitism.  I remember shortly after this, finding swastikas inside the elevator in my apartment building. I remember seeing young men marching with torches in Virginia.

In the last two years, I’ve added people to my family.  A year and a half ago, I remember meeting Nick’s niece, Maya, and every single day I worry about her. Sure, she’s biracial, but she looks black. It scares me to think of some of the horrors she may face one day.

The house, barn, and fields where Rachel played as a child.

I can’t help but picture Maya when I hear of the atrocities that happen to others in this country who look as she does. I want to hold her and love her and keep her safe – but the only way to truly do that is to change this problem.

It’s not a Southern problem, it’s an American problem. In the day in which we live, we have a racist tyrant in our highest office who’s speaking of his “good genes.”  At times, I feel as though my life has been preparing for these days ahead of us. My upbringing had both racist and antiracist moments.  I was taught all are equal, but my community proved that all are not in our society. 

It’s hard to describe all the feelings running through me at the moment.  There’s fear in what the coming days will bring, and how this time will change so many things about our future. There is a deep shame in this country, but also a warm and beautiful hope for our future.  That hope will sustain me and keep me going. It’s that hope that I must let drive me now.

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